Working with children with special needs during the pandemic has presented new challenges for educators. Penn State World Campus students who are special education teachers say the support they get from the education faculty and program is helping them manage those challenges. 

The faculty in the College of Education, which is home to the Master of Education in Special Education program, have created lists of resources for teaching online, set up one-on-one meetings with students, and held Zoom open houses for students to talk with professors and each other about their experiences on the job. 

“It’s really nice to have that support there,” said Alex Condie, an emotional support teacher working with fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the Williamsport Area School District in Pennsylvania. Condie is pursuing a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in academic and behavioral supports. 

Condie said that in addition to her courses themselves, which “have opened my eyes to different ideas to try in the classroom,” she has especially appreciated the camaraderie of the open houses. 

“It’s a safe place to come and talk and bounce ideas off each other,” Condie said. 

Katie Hoffman, coordinator for the online master’s degree program, said COVID-19 has affected every student in the program, whether they are working as teachers, registered behavior technicians, or behavior therapists. 

“One of the goals of our special education program is to support our adult World Campus students who are navigating this unprecedented time,” she said. 

Hoffman and Laura Bray, one of the lead advisers and instructors for the online M.Ed. program, have held several open houses for students.

“Our students have created communities where they listen to each other’s challenges, celebrate successes, and exchange ideas,” Hoffman said.

Emily Garis, who is finishing a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis and teaching special education in the State College Area School District in Pennsylvania, said teaching remotely last spring when schools shut down was difficult for her students, especially the kindergarteners and first-graders. 

“A lot of my job is sitting next to students and prompting them and managing behaviors as they come up,” Garis said. 

Garis said a list of resources about remote teaching compiled by Hoffman helped her manage. In addition, Hoffman “gave me a pep talk,” Garis said.

“She checked in with me and reminded me that even though I was feeling useless then, that wasn’t an accurate feeling.” 

Mahwish Mustafa, who is also completing a master’s degree with an emphasis in applied behavior analysis, works at a clinic in Bridgewater, New Jersey, for children with autism. Being in school for the same profession she is working in has been “very helpful” during the pandemic, Mustafa said. 

“I can talk to my professors about what’s going on at work and vice versa.” 

The pandemic has caused many changes at the clinic where Mustafa works, in addition to the use of masks and gloves and constant cleaning. Social interaction has been reduced: Morning meetings are held with two children at a time instead of six or seven, and pick-ups and drop-offs are staggered, she said. 

The pandemic has also led to more behavior issues and depression among children with special needs, she said.

“Everything is closed down — there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to see.” 

Mustafa, who is also the primary caregiver for her own two children, one of whom has autism, said she has been grateful for the support of her World Campus family throughout the pandemic. 

“All of my professors have been so thoughtful and considerate and aware of everything that’s going on,” she said. “It’s nice knowing that we’re not in this alone.”